At an event in California next week, Apple seems set to take the wraps off a product that's been the subject of rumour and speculation for the best part of a decade. Long before the Apple Watch even seemed like a distant possibility, the company was rumoured to be exploring a move into television. Coy dismissals of its existing, low-cost AppleTV box as a "hobby" merely fuelled the sense that it was less a hobby, and more a foot in the door; a casual sideline for the giant company, just waiting to turn into its next big business unit.
"From our perspective in the games business, though, an App Store is the key aspect; an App Store means games, which means - potentially - a whole new platform."
Now, unless the furiously spinning rumour mills have flown entirely off their mountings and rolled off over the hills, we seem set to see what Apple's been working on all this time. It will almost certainly not be what was expected a few years ago, when many analysts - less aware of their turf than they really ought to be, I'd argue - predicted that the firm would release an actual TV screen with an advanced operating system built in. This may have been explored, but it was never on the cards, because Apple would have quickly recognised what it took Sony many years to understand, but was grasped intuitively by the likes of Amazon - that televisions have become are an utterly commoditised, low-value market. High-end players in the market are foundering as low-end players catch up with their quality; any developing country box-shifter today can turn out a convincing HDTV set that may not have the full feature set of a Sony or a Samsung, but will cost half as much. Innovations like 3D screens which were designed to maintain an advantage for the high-end have foundered (the most recent example of this being the 8K screens I've recently seen touted). HD screens, at almost every size, are cheap, ubiquitous, highly competitive and very low margin. Apple doesn't want to build HD screens.
Instead, what we're going to get is a box; another microconsole, essentially a major upgrade to the existing AppleTV product. The big news is going to be about software and content; this will be the first time that the AppleTV will have an App Store, and there's quite possibly going to be some big news from Apple on the content front, either now or down the line, with the potential for following Netflix and Amazon into high-quality original content production. From our perspective in the games business, though, an App Store is the key aspect; an App Store means games, which means - potentially - a whole new platform.
So this thing will probably be able to run games. What kind of games? Well, nobody's quite sure what hardware will be inside the box, but Apple has an embarrassment of riches to choose from in terms of powerful, low-cost chipsets, so the rumours that this will be a tiny powerhouse perfectly capable of running reasonably impressive games probably aren't far wrong. Indeed, given the chipsets that Apple now routinely shoves into iPhones and the like - chipsets which it designs and manufactures itself, further reducing costs - it even seems likely that a surprisingly powerful box could be created without troubling the perhaps-too-high $199 price point being proposed by some rumour sites. Don't worry too much about the graphical oomph of mobile phone chipsets running games on an HDTV, either; that may be a much bigger screen, but it has precisely the same pixel count (1980x1080) as the screen of the iPhone 6 Plus, so Apple's gear is already well accustomed to resolutions on that scale.
"It won't be a gamepad, but that isn't the point; people who want a gamepad will buy game systems. It will, all things being equal, be a controller that allows people to play some fun games - and that is the very basis of a market."
More interesting than the hardware in the box is the hardware outside the box. Apps on TVs aren't a popular thing right now (most smart TV owners I know never use anything other than the Netflix app) but they're not a new thing either - and while hardware performance might be one factor holding them back, I don't think it's the crucial one. The big limiting factor right now, rather, is control. TV remotes are a UX nightmare at the best of times, but they're designed for very occasional selections of largely passively consumed content. When they're asked to perform as input devices for more involved applications, or games - the most controller-sensitive applications of all - they fail miserably. Attempts to improve upon this with stuff like Samsung's Kinect-like hand-waving interface have largely underwhelmed, while Amazon's dedicated gamepad for the Fire TV basically suffers from the innate problem of demanding an additional purchase with the Fire TV device in order to play games properly - thus losing out on the "oh, I wonder what games on this thing are like?" impulse which is likely to be the backbone of the market for games on these devices, just as it was on smartphones at the outset.
We'll find out next week if Apple has cracked this problem, but the signs are reasonably positive. Reports of a controller which integrates a trackpad and microphone (like FireTV) into a high-precision motion tracking device (like the Wii MotionPlus) suggest that the default remote will be very functional for games. It won't be a gamepad, but that isn't the point; people who want a gamepad will buy game systems. It will, all things being equal, be a controller that allows people to play some fun games - and that is the very basis of a market.
What I'm getting at is that Apple's entry into this market needs to be taken seriously by developers - partially because it seems quite well considered and has a good chance of success, and partially just because it's Apple. Much like when Microsoft decided to enter the games market with the Xbox, it's a move that just can't be ignored because of the sheer financial and marketing muscle behind it. How long it will take and how much it will cost to get Apple TV hooked up to an appreciable number of TVs and turned into a major market for apps and games is a good question to which the only reasonable answer right now is, "Well, Apple can afford it regardless." (It's also starting from a good position - the existing AppleTV, despite its limited capabilities, is the market leader in the home streaming device category.)
What kinds of game will dominate on the AppleTV is another question that lacks a clear answer, but it's very likely, given the nature of the App Store and of the kind of casual consumer who will want to play games on a device like this, that free-to-play will be the dominant business model. The kind of consumer involved is unlikely to be a hardcore gamer (at least not in that instant - most core gamers have their casual moments, and vice versa); rather, it will be people interested in extending their mobile gaming habit to the larger screen occasionally, or casual gamers who see the device as an extension of the kind of gaming habits that might have seen them buy a PS2 or a Wii in the past.
"I expect that there will be a lot of success for developers who figure out effective ways to link the "out and about" mobile play experience with the "on the sofa" Apple TV experience in rewarding ways."
In the early days, as with most such platforms, there will undoubtedly be opportunities for low-cost premium titles to make their mark; early adopters are less price sensitive than later audiences and more likely to pay up a few dollars for games that look interesting or show off their new hardware. The formula for success here will not be dissimilar to what worked on iPhone and iPad in the early days of those platforms. Some games which really show off the platform will do well (think Infinity Blade), while a handful of games that really intelligently and appropriately use the controller will become phenomena, at least for a while (I'm thinking here of things like Fruit Ninja and, to an extent, Angry Birds).
As the platform grows, games will need to change track somewhat - cracking the secret of long-term appeal on a platform that demands that casual gamers sit down on a sofa and play, rather than just tapping on a phone wherever they may be, will be tricky, and I expect that there will be a lot of success for developers who figure out effective ways to link the "out and about" mobile play experience with the "on the sofa" Apple TV experience in rewarding ways. At the same time, despite the ubiquity of smartphones, it would be foolish to assume that all smartphone users play games, or that all of those who don't will not be interested in the potential for a home device they already own to play some casual games; there's potentially a new market here, not just a chance to wring more cash out of existing casual gamers.
The bottom line is that as long as Apple's announcement next week is in line with expectations at least to some degree (which is never a given with a company this secretive), the platform they'll be creating with this new device ought to be a genuinely exciting one for developers. It will open up a new market and the possibilities of new experiences; it will, at least temporarily, give premium games a shot in the arm, while broadening the horizons of free-to-play in the medium term; it will give yet another new tier and new approach to the ever-broadening landscape of games. I don't expect AppleTV to change the world, but it should be a positive addition to the ecosystem - and could well change the future of a handful of clever game developers who play their cards right on the system at the outset.